Shelly Isaacs is a veteran advertising man who wrote the first TV commercial for Duracell batteries in the 1970s. But he’s much better-known these days as one of South Florida’s most accessible experts on foreign-language film.
The founder of Café Cinematheque International, Isaacs is a Bronx native who earned his undergraduate degree in psychology and marketing from the City College of New York and a master’s in communications from New York University. He teaches film appreciation in Lifelong Learning at Florida International University and will teach at Florida Atlantic University in the fall. He lives in Boca Raton with his wife of 27 years, Leslie; their daughter, Danie, has just earned a master’s in fine arts from the Sotheby’s Institute in London.
Last year, Isaacs relocated his film series from Mizner Park to Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale, the Movies of Delray and the Movies of Lake Worth, and also launched Cinematheque at Sea, a film-appreciation series on cruise ships.
Writer Jan Engoren sat down with Isaacs one rainy Monday to talk about international cinema, his all-time favorite directors, road movies without Bob and Bing, watching films on the high seas, and his love of Italian directors and Italian food.
Jan Engoren: Your passion for film seems to span many continents and genres. How did you become interested in cinema, and especially foreign cinema?
Shelly Isaacs: As far back as I can remember, I’ve been interested in the movies. But I prefer the term “foreign-language films.” I don’t want to call them foreign films, because my goal is to bring people together and make the world smaller. Back in the early 1950s in the Bronx, when I was 7 years old, my mother always took me to the movies. I remember my first film was a war movie starring Van Heflin, Anne Francis and Tab Hunter called Battle Cry, based on a book by Leon Uris.
I was thrilled. There were three to four other people in the theater with me. When the film ended and I walked out into the lobby, there was a promotion to enlist in the Army. There were uniforms, guns, all the paraphernalia, even a howitzer in the street. I thought, “They did this all for me.” I was a kid in a candy store – it was wonderful. When my mother returned, she said, “You were so good, you can go to the movies by yourself from now on.”
So, from the age of 7, I went to the movies by myself every weekend. When I got older, I snuck out of school to go to the theater. I could sit through the same movie two to three times. I learned about all the actors, how the film was made, what type of music was played, all aspects of the production.
When I was 9 or 10, my oldest brother, Harvey, took me to see my first foreign film, François Truffaut’s 400 Blows. I immediately fell in love with foreign-language films. I had a pretty eclectic early cinema-going experience.
Engoren: Your knowledge of film is very academic. Did you study film in college?
Isaacs: I was involved with theater in college, and my interest in film increased. I did some acting off-Broadway. I directed a children’s theater and then went to graduate school at New York University. I studied media ecology – the study of media trends and environments from a cultural and anthropological viewpoint. I loved it and wound up teaching graduate-level communications and culture.
After grad school, I gravitated towards advertising. Like Dustin Hoffman and plastics in The Graduate, someone said to me: “Why don’t you try advertising?”
It came easily to me, so I spent most of my career in advertising. I did the advertising for the 1979 films Arthur, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Alien. I created scripts, trailers, ads and posters for many of the big films at the time. I tried my hand in advertising in Hollywood, but it was never a good match for me. I’m a New York kid.
Engoren: How did you become so knowledgeable about international cinema?
Isaacs: I’ve always been partial to international cinema. When I came to Florida in 1997, I noticed that there was a void in international film. I saw an opportunity, and together with Temple Beth-El of Boca Raton and the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, I created a forum on the Jewish-American experience as portrayed on film. I obtained original prints from the Brandeis University archives and screened nine classic films including The Pawnbroker, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Man in the Glass Booth, and Gentleman’s Agreement, and had a speaker from the prosecuting team in Nuremberg.
Engoren: Do you choose films with a particular subject matter or theme? What turns you on cinematically?
Isaacs: Everything. I’ll watch any film; I don’t have a preference for a particular genre. I love all film. I love storytelling. Storytelling transcends all genres. If it’s a good story, it will capture my interest and the audiences’ interest. I like good narrative. I’m not a fan of today’s Hollywood blockbuster films or sophomoric comedies. One is fine, but more than that, it becomes derivative.
I enjoy good drama. Science fiction from when I was a kid is always a favorite. I love film noir, thrillers, family drama and comedies. I love films in all shapes and sizes.
To paraphrase Jean Luc-Godard, “In every great film there are 10 boring minutes and in every bad film, there are 10 great minutes.” That is, 10 minutes worth talking about.
Engoren: Do you have a favorite director?
Isaacs: No. I have favorite directors. The list is endless. Here are some of my favorites, considered to be the masters. I love the Italian neorealists – Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti.
De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief is one of the greatest films of all times. It tells the story of a poor man searching the streets of Rome for his stolen bicycle, which he needs to earn a living.
The film won an honorary Academy Award in 1950 before there was a category for foreign-language films. It was shot in the 1940s on location with non-actors. It deals with human suffering, overcoming poverty, trying to rise above it and survive. When you sit down and analyze this – the filmmakers were forced to improvise. They didn’t have big budgets. They didn’t have sets. They had to figure out how to tell the story with what they had.
My other favorite directors include Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Fritz Lang and the great American directors, including Howard Hawks, Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood.
I think Eastwood is a master. I love what he did with Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags for Our Father. Brilliant. They showed all aspects of the war – from both sides– the Japanese and American perspectives.
Engoren: Are you the kind of person who can recite scenes verbatim from a film?
Isaacs: Not verbal scenes. I remember visual scenes. Film is a visual medium and has a language of its own. Sometimes a closeup of a face and the use of light and shadows can express so much emotion. A single shot in a film can blow you away.
Frequently, a director will “steal” a technique or a shot. In the case of film, it’s considered an hommage. It’s also something that works.
Often, the hommage is a subconscious process– it’s not derivative. It’s a technique that works to express feelings. That’s why it gets used time and again.
Another Japanese director I love is Hirokazu Koreeda. He does films about Japanese life and references many of the great masters. There are no special effects. They’re narratives about the human condition. His films are beautiful: Nobody Knows and a film he did two years ago, Still Walking. I hoped Still Walking would be nominated for an Academy Award.
Nobody Knows, about four children, each by a different father and abandoned by their mother who are forced to survive on their own, pays homage to Truffaut’s 400 Blows.
The last shot in Nobody Knows is a freeze-frame of children walking through a Tokyo neighborhood looking back over their shoulder. That’s the ending of 400 Blows: Antoine Doinel standing on the shore, looking at the ocean, running towards the ocean to freedom and the future, but looking backwards. What is back there? What is he leaving behind and where is he going? That shot encapsulates his feelings. Truffaut originated it and Koreeda appropriates it because it works. He’s not stealing it. It’s a shot that works.
How do directors create cinematic language? That’s the critical question. How do you take a film and advance the art?
Godard says in essence, “The ultimate narrative film is to begin to look like a documentary.” It begins to look real. The film attains the feeling of a documentary. And vice versa. The goal of a documentary filmmaker is to gain the feeling of narrative –this is a story that transcends reality. When we look at great film – it captures the essence of a story so that you believe it is real. That’s what Godard has been doing for most of his life.
Another one of my favorite directors is the Japanese director, Yasujirō Ozu, known for his distinctive technical style. In 1953, he directed one of the greatest films of all time called Tokyo Story, which is considered his masterpiece film.
I consider him one of the greatest directors of all time. He directed about 50 films over the course of his lifetime. They were intimately Japanese and universally accessible. They resonate with feelings and emotions that we all have, so you don’t have to be Japanese to appreciate them.
One of his traits was to block the camera off at 3 feet above the ground. It never wavers from that spot. He shot scenes from that vantage point. Why? Because that’s the height of the tatami mat. We see life unfold where Japanese life takes place – on the tatami mat – 3 feet off the ground. And it’s almost as if his characters are floating. There are wonderful insights into the human condition.
The great directors are all in their 80s and the great Portuguese director, Manoel Cândido Pinto de Olivera, is 102 and still working. He’s made some remarkable gems. His 2003 film, A Talking Picture, is a meditation on war, society and civilization as seen through the eyes of several women from different nationalities while on a cruise. Wonderful. It even had John Malkovich in it.
In China, I admire Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaije, part of the fifth generation of Chinese film directors to graduate film after Mao Zedong died. Zhang does great human stories, which are not popular here but are available on DVDs, including The Road Home, Not One Less and Ju Dou. These are contemporary dramas of modern-day China and reflect Chinese history.
Engoren: What is the audience like for your film series and cruises?
Isaacs: Most of the audience is aged 50 and older. Quality art films require a certain amount of life experience to fully appreciate them. You don’t have to be an intellectual, but you have had to live and appreciate the world. If you experience life you can relate to the people in these films. They’re stories about people and their cultures. It’s the human condition. Stories about love, anger, vengeance and human emotion. What I love about it is that these films create a sense of community. The same people keep coming back.
One of my dreams is to take a cruise to Europe and do a short land excursion to Italy. I’d like to go to Cinecitta Studios, the studio where Fellini shot his films.
Engoren: You speak almost longingly about film. Have you ever wanted to shoot your own movie?
Isaacs: I’d love to, but it hasn’t been in the cards yet. What I love is talking about films, understanding films, researching films, learning the history of films, the development of films and how the best directors today have been influenced by the classics.
Engoren: What genre film are you partial to?
Isaacs: Road movies are one of the greatest genres. The character must take a journey. In order to be great, a road movie must address the transformation of character and it must take us on a journey through alien territory, to mystery, to characters you’ve never met before, and where you can’t anticipate what the characters will do. You never know which way the road will go, and you never know how it will turn out.
Engoren: Do you have a favorite road movie?
Isaacs: Best road movie? Don’t ask me that. I have too many. Recently I screened a film by Zhang Yimou, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, starring the Japanese actor Ken Takakura. It’s a story about a Japanese man who travels through Japan to fulfill a wish for his son and seek his forgiveness.
It’s about brotherly love and loyalty. On the journey, the character is completely transformed. Road movies don’t have to be Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Road movies are about journeys. And it doesn’t have to be a physical journey. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is another example of a good road movie.
When I was in graduate school, I heard Coppola give a lecture where he said that one of his goals was to take film, radio, music and TV and converge them into one artistic expression. I think that is wonderful.
Today, Steve Jobs is trying to do this with computers. Converge the world through computers. A good director appreciates all mediums. Radio is the theater of the mind. If you listen to radio it opens up your imagination. And it can lead you to do things in film and TV. TV used to be a very contained box – 21 inches. Now, TV is becoming theater. This takes away the intimacy of television.
Engoren: I have some James Lipton-esque questions for you. What qualities do you value in yourself?
Isaacs: Persistence, patience, humor, and most important, sensitivity.
Engoren: You have many irons in the fire and seem to be involved in a variety of different projects. Do you consider yourself a workaholic?
Isaacs: No. I’m constantly reading, researching and viewing films, but it’s a labor of love. Workaholics don’t do it because they love it, but because they have to. They’re compelled. I’m not a Type A personality.
Engoren: What type are you?
Isaacs: Type Z – off the charts.
Engoren: What makes you the happiest?
Isaacs: My family and sharing great films with others. Seeing films with an audience. Seeing others get the same thrill that I do from a film or sharing any moment in time. Getting joy from the shared experience.
Engoren: If you had the chance to transform yourself, like a character in one of these films, what else would you choose to do if you weren’t doing this?
Isaacs: You mean, if I come back as something else? I’d love to be a musician. I love all types of music. Or a writer, or possibly, a chef. I love to bake bread and cook Italian food from La Cucina Italiana. I make a delicious pasta dish with tomatoes, capers and lemon zest. My wife ate it and lived.
Engoren: What drives you?
Isaacs: Right now, a 2007 Volvo. I’m not sure I’d say I was driven; I’d say I was passionate.
Engoren: Do you ever have time to sit down with a book or just enjoy your downtime? What do you do for fun or relaxation?
Isaacs: I love to travel. I went to Normandy two years ago to see the beaches where the Allies landed. I’ve been all over the world. I play tennis or read for relaxation. I read the newspaper every day.
Engoren: Your career includes many accomplishments. Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you’d like to accomplish?
Isaacs: Yes, I’d like to work with educators and filmmakers. I have an idea for program called Watch, Read and Learn, designed to expose children to foreign-language films. The same way these films open the world up to my older audiences, [they] can open the world to children.
Engoren: Many people are initially relectant to see foreign-language films with subtitles. Why are subtitles a disincentive to some people?
Isaacs: In some cases, people are afraid they will miss the film because they are concentrating on the subtitles. Or they don’t want to work too hard. They don’t want to think when they see a movie. Some people need to feel that the film is familiar. Subtitles are unfamiliar and other cultures are unfamiliar. People need to open themselves up. Film can change the way you see the world.
Yet, some people who are initially resistant, walk away saying, “I want to see more.” They are transformed. The greatest thing is to transform someone who initially resists and have them walk away saying, “I want to see more.”
Engoren: You’ve had a very interesting and creative career. What have been the highlights for you?
Isaacs: Teaching at NYU. Learning the ad business from great mentors and legends such as George Lois and Steve Frankfurt, both art directors, and Steve Gordon, a close personal friend who died young (44), after having written and directed the film, Arthur, starring Dudley Moore. Writing the first commercial for Duracell batteries back in the late 70s.
Having the opportunity to direct commercials with the world’s great talents. In the late ‘80s and ‘90s I worked on an HBO show called Serious Comedy. I worked with every known comedian at that time – Howie Mandel, Elaine Boozler, Robert Klein, Steven Wright, Louie Anderson, etc.
Engoren: Your film series have certainly enriched the cultural landscape of South Florida. What do you see as your legacy?
Isaacs: I’m always looking for sponsors for my film series and I hope part of my legacy will be getting more people to enjoy foreign-language films. I’d love to create something lasting. Write something. Be part of something. With technology like Skype I’d love to invite a director to talk and interact with the audience.
My ultimate fantasy is to become an itinerant theater on wheels – have a projector and a screen and take the show on the road. There’s a road trip for you. I’d make it accessible to different communities. Show films at a park or local amphitheatre. Make it an interactive experience. We’ve got Facebook, Twitter; we’ve got texts. Announce it – I’m coming into town – come watch a film with me and let’s talk about it.
To learn more about Café Cinematheque or Cinematheque at Sea, e-mail Isaacs at: email@example.com or call 561-347-8509.